July 12 performance reviewed by Ed McDonnell
If you visit the Barrington Stage Company to see Underneath the Lintel, you may get more than entertainment. Playwright Glen Berger and the gifted actor Glynis Bell offer you a little something extra: immortality. Of a sort.
You have to be in the right state of mind, receptive, to say the very least, and of course there’s a catch. When a librarian of Hoofddorp, Holland, receives a book overdue by 113 years, she can’t stop wondering and she won’t leave it alone. She undertakes to pursue the story that must be there.
Increasingly obsessive, not understanding her obsession, she risks her job and burns through her money and vacation time, fixing on the next and the next in a series of shaky leads or “lovely evidences” as she calls them, or “significant scraps.”
Chasing from city to city into several continents, all along the way she pauses to marvel at the grotesque nature of the thin trail, the enormity of the puzzle and her own uncharacteristic willingness to jump off into uncertainty. The chronicle of the case is alternated with pieces of her ordinary “real life” in Hoofddorf and we find that once, at an early age, reluctance cost her dearly.
She is brought to contemplation through her tireless detective work in evaluating, besides other “lovely evidences”:
- a ticket from a Chinese laundry in London, from 1913;
- a tram logbook from 1912 Germany;
- a disintegrating pair of pants corresponding to the claim ticket;
- notes on the condition of a dog, named for a houseplant;
She feels the stupidity and trivialness of death: “Do you know how Aeschylus died, that towering playwright of ancient Greece?” she asks. It has to do with a falling turtle. “Fourteen people in America die every year by vending machines…shaking them for the fifty cents…” She feels the vastness of time and that it cares nothing for the countless organisms that come and go, most of them leaving no trace, and a very few leaving, apparently, special messages.
The size of the universe, its age, and the inevitability of death are playwright Glen Berger’s only concerns. “I write plays to help me keep these three facts in the front of my head. In other words, I write to try to keep myself engaged with the Bewildering and Infinite.”
The librarian begins to believe that the faceless “A.” may be more than a nameless, meaningless lost soul whose life’s intersection with her own is only coincidence. He may be…a myth. And the suggestion that this myth may be more than an old story generated by its times and preserved for its changing relevance, its value as illustration of timeless things or just its whimsy, is a deep shock.
Here her mind opens wide, with a new appreciation of life. Not her life, but Life entire, the Universe. Despite the pervasive humor of the play to this point, the viewer is urged toward this unsettling experience and to one of his own. Separated by only minutes from her considerations of these things, the librarian weeps for a lost opportunity in love.
Are we insignificant? Do you want immortality? There’s a catch. There’s more than one.